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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"Science: Before and After September 11"

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Science and Technology Issues, Policies and Debates: A Leadership Forum
Brookings Institution

June 19, 2002

I am delighted to be here as a speaker at the Brookings Institution, whose objective is to serve as a bridge between scholarship and public policy, a combination more necessary now than ever before.

Brookings is known for its timely and insightful analysis of current events, and for its independent voice on major policy issues. It is especially important to have such an institution during times of rapid change and significantly altered circumstances for the nation.

It is my pleasure to share with all of you today some perspectives from science and science policy. I've titled my remarks, Science: Before and After September 11.

There is only a short list of historic moments that have come to be used as markers for us to measure a place in time. When we speak of ancient timeframes, we mark them first with BC or AD.

In our own history, we speak of the Revolution, the Civil War, Pearl Harbor, Sputnik, the Kennedy assassination, the Moonwalk, and now, September 11th. That day is a new marker in our collective psyche and in our society.

There is a line I recollect from a poem that I read long ago. It was, "There are no stars to hold this time in place." I suspect most of us felt that way as those unimaginable events unfolded.

At this time of uncertainty, the need of our society for all of you is greater than ever before. Your experience, wisdom, research, and measured debate can bring both historical context and analytical order to precipitate public discussion and, hopefully, understanding of the complex issues.

It is abundantly clear that there is a concurrent need for increased scientific and engineering knowledge. In times such as these, we are acutely cognizant of living in a society defined by, and dependent on, science and technology.

Every discussion about airline safety, contamination by disease, failure of communication links, poisoning of food and drinking water, assessment of damaged infrastructure, and countless other concerns depends on our scientific and technical knowledge.

The mathematician-philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said of science, "The aims of scientific thought are to see the general in the particular and the eternal in the transitory."

And so we must ask how science can elucidate these times that we are living in. We know that science brings fresh knowledge of ourselves and our planet and, thus, what is newly possible. That, however, is not enough.

Science and technology are neutral. They are neither inherently good nor bad. What we choose to do with the potential offered us by scientific knowledge is another matter. We have seen that so clearly in the last several weeks.

Modern biotechnology allows us to feed the world with improved nutrition but also allows terrorists to make more lethal bioweapons with greater ease. The same fertilizers that make our agriculture more productive were the mechanisms for destroying the Federal building in Oklahoma City just a few years ago. Scientists and non-scientists alike are all guardians over such choices.

The world has always been a delicate balance of many complex forces, not the least of which is humanity - in all of its diversity of cultures, goals, and behaviors.

Today, sophisticated knowledge, powerful tools, and high-speed transportation and communication amplify that complexity.

For the past 50 years, the federal government has provided continuous and growing support to develop the underlying science, technology, and knowledge that helped us build these capabilities. This began, in large part, as a result of the significant role that science played in winning World War II.

Since then, our enterprise of scientists and engineers has been responsive to the changing context of society. We will need to strengthen the links between physical sciences and the social and behavioral sciences.

Our accrued knowledge from decades of research support is already serving new objectives brought about by the events that began on September 11th. The nation's science policy will move in the direction of national necessity.

The late Congressman George Brown of California was science's best friend and most constructive critic in the Congress. In a 1994 speech at the National Academy of Sciences, he said, "We must have . a research system that arches and bends with society's goals." The larger context determines the direction in which this movement occurs. The research enterprise arches and bends to national needs.

In hindsight, there was a certain stability in the Cold War period - with its recognizable foes and unifying ideals. The interval since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 has shown us the signs and signals of past fragmentation, the rise of old hatreds, and the burgeoning of new ones. In some sense, the fifty years of the Cold War was an anomalous period in the larger scope of human history.

In the long sweep of civilization, science and engineering have had an ever-increasing influence in the life of society. We've used most of the knowledge gathered to remediate an existing problem or to address a current need.

We now recognize that we also must draw on one of science's most potent capacities - prediction. If we can predict, we frequently can prevent. The centuries of our accrued knowledge can and should increasingly be directed toward prevention.

In an old Icelandic saga there is a description of the character Snorri. It was said of him that "He was the wisest man in Iceland without the gift of foresight." To me, this has always meant that Snorri had a great deal of knowledge but he didn't quite take his knowledge to the next step. He didn't use it to see implications, to anticipate the future. Without foresight, he could easily be caught by surprise, and obviously without a plan.

We need to develop a broader, more anticipatory perspective in our research. We need to increase our emphasis on envisioning future possibilities, good or ill, as a mechanism to predict. Undoubtedly, this will open new vistas in our exploration and discovery.

This must take place at the same time that the research community maintains a freedom and passion for new frontiers and the rigor of merit review.

As all of you know so well, knowledge is our strongest insurance for preparedness. Without new knowledge we cannot develop foresight. As we evolve increasingly into a knowledge-based society, our economic growth, our national security, and our social well being will depend on the most advanced discoveries in every field. Knowledge is the bedrock.

Our ability to use foresight gives us a kind of early warning system - a guard against unintended consequences.

China experienced devastating floods in 1998 that were partially attributed to intense over-logging. Our science knowledge could have accurately predicted the consequent flooding and devastation.

Science can be an effective predictor. To prevent requires more. The research community needs to find more effective methods to use its capacity to predict to meet real world needs through prevention.

Everyone in this room knows that by solving a problem today we can easily sow the seeds of genuine dilemmas for the next generation. History is replete with examples. When foresight directs our actions and the use of knowledge, we are a lot less likely to fix the present at the cost of the future.

But we can never think of our current knowledge as a security blanket for the future. It will help us in the present but as Whitehead again instructs us, "Knowledge doesn't keep any better than fish."

New, more complete knowledge replaces it - a process of constant renewal and at an ever accelerating pace. This makes an unshakable case for consistent research in all eras, at all times.

Despite our vast knowledge base, we likely still know very little of what there is to know. This should prevent us from being arrogant about what we do know. That doesn't always happen, however. In fact, we do ourselves a national disservice when we educate and train our scientists and engineers only in science and technology.

The world in which our work brings success is a world of integration and overlapping consequences. Narrow knowledge can become incorrect knowledge.

America has been fortunate to have leaders who understood the value of ongoing support for research. They viewed research as an investment, not an expense. Just as a college education is an investment in an individual's future, support for research is an investment in the nation's future.

Advances in mathematics, physics, biology, chemistry - the core physical sciences - undergird all of the biomedical sciences on which we depend to understand disease, find cures, develop vaccines, and initiate preventive strategies.

Information technologies have touched and transformed almost every facet of our lives, our work, and our economy. As a result of a new software program, RAMPART, developed after the Oklahoma City bombing, we can explore the future probability of events occurring and what the losses might be.

The brief 30-year history of genetics has brought us from the exquisitely simple design of the double helix to the most precise identification of any human being. In criminal cases, the advent of DNA testing has frequently proven the fallibility of eye-witness-accounts.

Another form of genetics mushroomed into a whole industrial sector. Biotechnology has revolutionized agriculture with pest resistant plants. It has produced highly nutritious staple crops like golden rice, which provides a nutritionally complete meal in one serving.

Marine biotechnology, a "slow developer" in biotechnology, is just beginning to be stretched toward its potential.

The list of dramatic changes and choices that science has triggered is so diverse it verges on the wondrous. And, this only describes the present. The future promises to be even more spectacular.

The alternative to not being at the forefront of science and technology is the alternative of being left behind. Being left behind is a real possibility, with an ever-growing community of nations and their equally capable workers.

Globalization has proven repeatedly last decade that this is a major challenge. There is a reservoir of talent in other cultures of which we know little. They too will join the ranks of competitors

In the 21st century, success will be determined increasingly by science and technology. Clearly, economic survival means being on the cutting edge of discovery and knowledge creation.

Choosing otherwise is not frugal; it's just shortsighted. September 11 has taught us that terrorists also utilize sophisticated science and technology.

As we seek the greatest advantage from our research enterprise we should never mistake science and technology for a linear process.

Although science often leads to the development of new technology, new technology just as frequently enables science to explore new realms previously unreachable. Science does not enter a tunnel and come out the other end as technology. These two distinct forces historically have functioned in complement. Their relationship is symbiotic.

And the advances continue like a braid of skeins winding back and forth across each other. This intertwining of knowledge, ideas, if you will, and tools has moved us to new understanding. We recognize that many disciplines converge to unlock the complex operation of systems - everything from climate patterns to terrorist movements.

The scanning/tunneling microscope and the atomic force microscope enabled us to see the world at the molecular and atomic level for the first time. Those new and intensely powerful tools of the 1980s unlocked our vision to the potential of the world at nanoscale.

Today, scientists predict that nanofabrication will have the capability to transform our world with even greater impact than information technologies have done. For example, silicon polymer nanowires may cheaply detect traces of TNT and picric acid in both water and air. These tiny wires, 2000 times thinner than a human hair, could be used to detect explosives in terrorist bombs and land mines.

Just think of building new materials atom by atom. We will be able to make a wish list of characteristics to incorporate. Nano-structures are at the confluence of the smallest of human-made devices and the large molecules of living systems. With them, we will be able to connect nanomachines to individual human cells to target delivery of medicine. New Capacity tools started us in this direction. They will enable scientists and engineers to travel a path unknown, except to science fiction writers.

In my own research on cholera, technology played a crucial role. I could not have identified the cholera bacterium as water-borne and tied cholera outbreaks to the rise in sea-surface temperatures without satellite remote-sensing technology to scan expanses of ocean and the tools of molecular biology to scan the microscopic realm.

I have done most of that research over the last 25 years in the developing world, primarily in Bangladesh. There, deadly pandemics of cholera devastate villages and traumatize urban areas. For Americans, news of these dreaded scourges was sad statistics from far away. But we have the capacity to predict and prevent the major epidemics. But we in the developed world cannot become smug.

Since September 11, deadly disease scenarios are no longer implausible in our own backyard.

The World Health Organization estimates that nearly 13 million people died of infectious diseases in 1999.

Scourges that occur in some places because of poor sanitation and few medicines we now know can occur maliciously in any place. Science is our vehicle to prevent, or if need be combat, these threats.

Shortly after the first Anthrax attack last September, the National Science Foundation made an emergency award of $200,000 to sequence the genetic makeup of the Anthrax bacterium. Early in May of this year, with the sequencing completed, investigators were able to identify definitively the source of the strain used in the Anthrax attacks as the Ames strain, and apparently track it to Fort Detrick, Maryland and from there to fourteen other labs.

Microbial genome sequencing is a valuable tool in defending against bioterrorism and in understanding the variations and relatedness of microbes in nature. This is a clear example of fundamental research responding to national need. Such rapid response would not have been possible, however, without the 30 years of genetics research that went before it.

This new era marked by the watershed events of 9/11 presents new directions for science and technology. The phrase "homeland security" is now firmly incorporated into our national lexicon, and every sector of society, but especially the federal government, is in the business of preparedness.

The Anthrax attacks taught us another lesson. We saw a glaring example of why it is so important to have a public educated to the issues of science and technology. The surprise emergence of Anthrax in the mail set in motion a race for information.

It is vital that the public and all our leaders have a better working knowledge of the science and technology that defines our very existence. Although Anthrax is not an everyday occurrence, there were many, including public officials, who thought it was contagious.

Without correct information, we breed chaos and hysteria - neither of which fosters appropriate responses. We have a new battle to fight and that is to prevent man's deliberate turning back the clock of progress in public health.

A citizenry literate about science and technology serves several goals. It gives the nation a workforce educated and trained to compete in the increasingly competitive global marketplace. It promotes good judgment as voters on both issues and candidates. It serves as strong defense against delusions of safety as well as threats. I cannot stress enough the primary importance of a scientifically literate citizenry. I cannot stress enough the responsibility of the science community to help us meet that goal.

In multiple aspects, September 11 was a knife-sharp awakening for the nation and its leaders. Not the least of those surprises was how little the people outside of the science community and those on the periphery understand science and technology issues.

To a large extent, what we know and do not know as citizens is dependent on the media. The public increasingly relies on the mass communication of print and broadcast information.

The science community must work in conjunction with the media to inform the general public on new issues that affect us all. We ignore this steep learning curve at considerable risk. We cannot protect ourselves if we do not understand the threats as well as the prevention.

The National Science Foundation has made a scientifically literate citizenry and workforce a major objective in all of our programs. We begin with teacher preparation and solid curricula for students in the K through 12 years.

Today, knowledge of science and technology is necessary for everyone, not just those who become scientists and engineers. We know that there is an expanding need for technically skilled workers whose final degree may be a high school diploma or an associate's degree. Even an automobile mechanic must deal with dozens of computers under the hood of the newest model car.

In addition, our national need for scientists and engineers cannot possibly be met by the traditional white male population. We must focus on attracting women and our diverse minority populations to these professions.

This poses a profoundly significant challenge that must be met in our primary schools, building from there to a broader base.

As we reflect on our knowledge-driven society, we all know that knowledge alone is not enough to make a better world. The Founding Fathers framed a set of primary values for our nation based on the independence of, and the respect for, individuals. Armed with these values, science becomes an important vehicle for human progress.

With these values to guide us, we have made appropriate choices for ourselves as a nation. But we are not alone in the world.

Let me share with you in closing the words of George Brown, again, because you are an international community of scholars and public policy experts. In a speech titled A New Paradigm for Development: Building Dignity Instead of Dependence, he said,

"This work must begin first by viewing developing nations as partners instead of as step-children. .Of all the many ways in which we can cooperate for the global good, the case for science and technology cooperation with science-poorer nations is perhaps the most compelling. To do so, we must abandon the instinct to judge others by their past accomplishments or to judge our own accomplishments as the proper path for others.

We know that science and technology are an important force to help balance the world's inequities. The job of the science community and our nation's leaders is to find a host of mechanisms to make use of the knowledge and benefits, working as partners."

I think that says it all. Thank you.



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